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Thessaloniki, Greece

Thessaloniki (Greek: Θεσσαλονίκη, Selanik in Turkish and Solun, Solun (Solun) in South Slavic languages), also known as Thessalonica (pron.: /ˌθɛsəlɵˈnaɪkə/ or pron.: /ˌθɛsəˈlɒnɪkə/) and Salonica, is the second-largest city in Greece and the capital of the region of Central Macedonia.

Greece's second largest city was the realm of Alexander the Great and named after his sister, Thessaloniki, when it was founded in 316 BC. The capital of Macedonia in the north, it sits in a bowl framed by low hills, facing a bay on the Gulf Thermaikos. Despite being one of the oldest cities in Europe, today Thessaloniki is lively and modern, and with its with wide avenues, parks and squares, is thought to be much more attractive than Athens.

The main squares are Platia Elefterias and Platia Aristotelous, both on the waterfront and alive with cafes and restaurants, children playing or people strolling. Thessaloniki, having been under Ottoman rule for long periods in its history, has been left a legacy of numerous Byzantine churches, and museums housing Byzantine art and artefacts. The city also has a heritage of early Christian communities, particularly the renowned monasteries of nearby Mount Athos; and a rich Jewish tradition, evident in the synagogues and Jewish Museum.

In 1917, most of the city was destroyed in a massive fire, and rebuilt later. This is not a high-rise city, though, because the area is prone to earthquakes and regulations have been imposed preventing the building of skyscrapers. This means that residents and visitors alike can enjoy the seaside situation of Thessaloniki, with views aplenty from the city streets.

There is a lot to see and do in Thessaloniki besides the ruins, including visits to the Turkish Baths, central market, and cafes and restaurants of Aristotelous Square. Thessaloniki also has a vibrant nightlife, with a number of lively bars and clubs.

At about a million inhabitants, it is considered Greece's cultural capital, renowned for its festivals, events and vibrant cultural life in general and has recently been ranked by Lonely Planet as the world's fifth-best party city worldwide. More importantly, it is also a city with a continuous 3,000 year old history; preserving relics of its Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman past and of its formerly dominant Jewish population. Many of its Byzantine churches, and a whole district of the city in particular, are included in UNESCO's World Heritage list.

Climate and Weather

Thessaloniki displays characteristics of both a Mediterranean and continental climate with hot and humid summers with average daytime weather highs of 86°F (30°C) and the possibility of thunder storms. The winters are much cooler with dry, cold days, morning frost and annual snowfall. The weather in Thessaloniki in general is warmer in the south than the north with the mountainous areas being cooler. There is plenty of rainfall in the wet season between September and January but it can rain at any time of year in Thessaloniki. Although the city remains very popular in the summer, which is peak tourist season throughout Greece, despite the often oppressive heat, the best time to visit Thessaloniki is in the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn, preferably May or September, when it is a little cooler but still warm and sunny enough to enjoy all the outdoor attractions and the beach - although you may get some showers. If you are travelling on a budget then winter is the best time to visit because accommodation is much cheaper in the off-season - you will also avoid all the crowds in winter - but it does get cold and you will almost certainly have rain or even snow to contend with.

What to see in Thessaloniki

The northernmost Byzantine walls of the city and parts of the western walls are still standing, as is the city's symbol - the White Tower, one of the 16th Century. AD fortified towers - which is the only surviving tower on the seafront. The rest of the walls are in the picturesque Upper Town which offers a spectacular view over the bay, especially in the late afternoon. Take a walk along the enormous seafront promenade (about 12 km altogether). See the the Roman Forum excavations.

Visit the upper town for its traditional old houses, small cobbled streets, Byzantine citadel, the Eptapyrgion fort.

On no account should you miss the Byzantine churches built between the 5th and 14th century ACE, such as Agios Demetrios, (7th Century. ACE) and Agia Sophia (Holy Wisdome, 9th Century. ACE), and many lovely smaller ones in the upper town (St Nicolaos Orfanos is particularly worth a look for its frescoes), which are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. One of them, the Rotunda, started life as a Roman temple of Zeus, built by ceasar Galerius, and is almost as old as the Pantheon in Rome. Next to the Rotunda, see the Arch of Triumph of Galerius and the ruins of his palace.

Also interesting are the Turkish public baths Bey Hamam, the Bezesteni (Ottoman closed market for jewellery and precious materials) the Alatza Imaret (Ottoman poorhouse) and Hamza Bey Camii (both restored and used for exhibitions).

What to do in Thessaloniki

The city has always been known between Greeks for its vibrant city culture, including having the most cafe's and bars per-capita than any other city in Europe (see: Drink); and as having some of the best nightlife and entertainment in the country, thanks to its large young population and multicultural feel. Trendy bars are scattered throughout the city and cater for all tastes, with many located on pedestrianized streets or along the coast, with sea views; while daily happenings and events take place throughout the city everyday.

Thessaloniki is also known for its picturesque uninterrupted promenade/waterfront, spanning for about 4.5 km from the old port to the Thessaloniki Concert Hall. From the White Tower, the waterfront gets considerably bigger (called Nea Paralia) and along with the seaside walk, features 13 thematic gardens. During summer it is full of Thessalonians enjoying their long evening walks (referred to as "the volta" and is embedded into the culture of the city). There you will find people selling all kinds of food, bike riding, skating, fishing and a generally lively atmosphere with font the Thermaic Gulf and the port.

You can yachting. The Thermaic Gulf is a challenging place for yachting and sailing. Many days there are strong North winds but with low waves, making sailing a fun and joy for all sailors. There are three sailing clubs in Thessaloniki and world championships take place in the city every year. Thessaloniki has several marinas, most notably in Kalamaria, southeast of the city center, while a new one is proposed to be constructed right at the city center that will contain 182 mooring places. There are also many Yacht charter companies renting sailing yachts.

What and where to buy in Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki is renowned for its major shopping streets and lively laneways. Tsimiski Street and Proxenou Koromila avenue are the city's most famous shopping streets and are among Greece's most expensive and exclusive high streets; there one can find various fashion shops of international brands, boutiques and high end international department stores. For cheaper clothing, check out Egnatia street.

The traditional central food market, with hundreds of stalls selling meat, fish, fruit, vegetables (sometimes cheek-by-jowl, an unnerving experience for North Americans), cheap clothes and shoes, flowers, herbs and spices, between Aristotele Square and Venizelou street.

Aristotelous Square-the biggest of the city-and the promenade with its cafes and restaurants.

What and where to eat in Thessaloniki

Due to the fact that Thessaloniki remained under Ottoman rule for about 100 years more than southern Greece, it has retained a lot of its Eastern character, including its culinary tastes. Spices in particular play an important role in the cuisine of Thessaloniki, something which is not true to the same degree about Greece's southern regions. Greeks consider Thessaloniki a gourmet city - but bear in mind that this refers to the excellent local specialities and cheap-and-cheerful ouzo taverns rather than to haute cuisine or a range of foreign restaurants. The latter are best avoided in Thessaloniki.

For any traveler to Thessaloniki, a Greek will usually mention how they expect you to bring back sweets from the city, as it is known for having some of the best in the country. Throughout Thessaloniki anyone can find a variety of places that sell: Tsoureki, a plaited sweetened bread, deserts such as Baklava and Galaktoboureko; and Bougatsa, the most famous pastry of Thessaloniki, with cream (sweet) or cheese (savoury) filling, which was invented in the city and has spread around other parts of Greece and the Balkans as well.

Some shops, where you can find the best sweets and pasties the city has to offer, include "Nikiforou" on Venizelou street, "Terkenlis" famous for its Tsoureki and "Chatzis" famous for its Baklava, but fame has not made it any better - it has become overpriced and not as good as in previous years.

Chatzis is famous for its collection of Greek Asia Minor sweets (politika glyka) originating from Istanbul.  

Terkenlis is famous for its variety of "tsoureki", a sweet bread much like brioche but containing spices too, covered and filled with several combinations of chocolates/creams/nuts, etc.  

Elenidis is considered the expert in "trigona" (triangles made of sfoglia, filled with cream).

Nightlife in Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki used to be called "the city that never sleeps", just like NYC. Even though this is not totally true anymore, you can always find another place to go for another beer, in case you really wanna stay out till the morning.

The city's nightlife has been changing a lot, during the last 10 years, but it has always been very versatile. You can do pretty much anything you'd possibly like. From trendy cocktail bars to old-school rock bars and from bar with live music to bouzoukia (venues with live greek music, usually way over-priced), you can still find a place to satisfy your needs and desires as a guest.
Thessaloniki has a very active nightlife scene and only recently it is starting to become exposed internationally, with Lonely Planet listing Thessaloniki as the world's fifth-best "ultimate party city".

Cafe-bars are scattered throughout the entire city, which create a lively atmosphere everywhere you step and you can have a drink whenever you want, while trendy bars line up along Thessaloniki's entire waterfront from the old port, along Nikis avenue and down to "Krini", a southeast coastal district of the city.

Thessaloniki also offers a wide variety of nightlife, from small to huge nightclubs with dance music, bars dedicated to rock music, jazz clubs and Bouzoukia, where you can experience Greek music and dancing. Large entertainment venues of the city include Pyli Axiou and Mamounia, at Vilka (which are housed in converted old factories). During summer, one can also find beach bars with lively music and serving drinks throughout the whole day and night, located at the city's southeast suburbs. The city's most known nightlife district is "Ladadika", there together with the many tavernas and restaurants, you will find the most known nightclubs and bars housed in old warehouses next to the port, while in the area around the Kamara (the Arch of Galerius) is home to many cheaper cafe's and bars, popular with the city's student population.

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Map of Thessaloniki »

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